As the spread of coronavirus in the UK continues to climb, with more than 29,000 cases now confirmed, there are urgent calls to increase testing.
The government is facing growing pressure to boost the amount of testing, after the death toll in the UK surpassed 2,300.
Why is testing so important?
Testing people for coronavirus is important in helping to both diagnose individuals, and to understand how widely the virus has spread.
Knowing who has been infected and where can allow the health service to plan, and more effectively cope, with demand on intensive care units.
Testing can also help to inform decisions on whether to tighten or relax social distancing measures.
If tests found that a large number of people have already been infected with the virus, lockdown measures may not need to be quite so stringent.
Tests may also show if people need to continue self-isolating, as they may have already had and recovered from the virus, and as such, would be deemed fit to return back to work.
The director general of the World Health Organisation (WHO), Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said: “We cannot stop this pandemic if we do not know who is infected.”
Prime Minister Boris Johnson echoed his assertion, stating in a video posed on Twitter: “I want to say a special word about testing, because it is so important and as I have said for weeks and weeks, this is the way through.
“This is how we will unlock the coronavirus puzzle. This is how we will defeat it in the end.”
What is the UK’s testing target?
Health officials are working to increase the number of tests that can be conducted by PHE to 25,000 per day by mid-April, with the highest-priority cases tested first.
Health Secretary Matt Hancock said the government is aiming to carry out 100,000 tests a day in England by May, announcing a five-point plan to reach the target.
This will involve:
- Swab tests to check if people already have the virus, using labs run by Public Health England
- Using commercial partners, such as universities and private businesses like Amazon and Boots, to do more swab testing
- Introducing antibody blood tests to check whether people have had the virus
- Surveillance to determine the rate of infection and how it is spreading across the country
- Building a British diagnostics industry, with help from pharmaceutical giants
The target was originally thought to be for the whole of the UK, but the government later issued a correction saying it will be for England only.
In Scotland, the Scottish government has set a goal of increasing testing to 3,500 per day by the end of April, while Wales plans to increase testing to 9,000 per day by the same deadline.
How many tests are being carried out?
As of 9am on 2 April, a total of 163,194 people have been tested for coronavirus in the UK, of which more than 33,700 tested positive, according to the Department of Health and Social Care.
The latest Public Health England (PHE) figures show that more than 10,400 tests were carried out on Tuesday (31 Mar), while the testing capacity for inpatient care stands at 12,799 per day.
The government has also tested more than 2,000 frontline NHS workers, but is facing mounting pressure to increase its capacity.
Professor Yvonne Doyle, medical director of PHE, said there is currently capacity for around 3,000 tests for frontline staff, which will increase.
Who gets a test?
So far, tests have been focused on those who have been admitted to hospital, with people who suffer milder symptoms told to self-isolate at home.
This means many people, including NHS staff, could be isolating for no reason, after contracting an ordinary cough or cold.
What does the test involve?
The test involves taking a deep swab of the nose or the back of the throat, with the results then sent off to a lab to be analysed for the genetic sequence particular to the coronavirus.
A blood test can also be used for patients believed to have had the condition and since recovered.
The finger-prick test identifies the antibodies produced by the body to fight off an infection, indicating that a person may have near-immunity from the virus for at least 28 days.
Where can I get a test?
So far, the majority of tests have been carried out in hospitals or in people’s homes, as well as a small amount of random sampling via GP surgeries.
Several mass testing sites have also been set up, including a drive-through testing centre for frontline NHS staff at an Ikea store in Wembley.
Boots is also setting up another drive-through system at its headquarters in Nottingham, and further sites are being sourced around the country.Currently, these facilities are reserved for NHS staff and by invitation only.
Tests have also been carried out in the car park of Chessington World of Adventures.
Why is testing taking so long?
Cabinet minister Michael Gove said at a Downing Street press conference on Tuesday (31 Mar) that a "critical constraint" on the ability to rapidly increase testing capacity is due to the availability of chemical reagents.
Gove said the Prime Minister and Health Secretary Matt Hancock are working with companies worldwide to ensure the UK gets the material needed to increase tests "of all kinds".
The Chemical Industries Association said: "While there is of course an escalating demand, there are reagents being manufactured and delivered to the NHS.
"Every business here in the UK and globally is looking at what they can do to help meet the demand as a matter of urgency.
"To clarify the exact NHS need and meet it, all relevant UK industries are continuing to work closely with Government."
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